Vyacheslav Bykov
A Russian who is well-respected

Hockey represents a balance of spirit and strategy

A conversation hosted by Zlata Smirnova, founder of Russian Nights in Switzerland

ZLATA: What do you think – is national character present in this sport? And is it the Russian national character or, perhaps, the Swiss one?

Vyacheslav Bykov:
National character is very important. Instilling that is present in all components of the philosophy and psychology behind sports, and across all athletic disciplines. And not only in sports. If we say that there only Russian national character exists, then that would be snobbish: each nation has its own character. If we talk about what we embed in this concept, then this probably means the readiness for self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater goal. In difficult times, we always find an inner reserve of strength that allows us to succeed against all odds. Maybe I will give a tough, difficult example, but it conveys perfectly well the state of mind and character of the Russian people: the example of the legendary Aleksander Matrosov. This is a person deciding to give his life for the benefit of others, no matter what happens. It is the heroism and inspiration that help move mountains.

The ability to endure and rise above oneself for the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of a greater goal

Hockey players are special kind of people. This is the ideal for a man, the quintessence of masculinity in its highest sense. It is difficult to imagine that a hockey player would whine, spin petty lies, be fussy, or somehow be nitpicky. Is that really true?

I don’t think this applies exclusively to hockey players. This is also present in other athletic disciplines. Maybe hockey is a comprehensive sport where, in addition to physical conditions, there are psychological and emotional components, and, as you say, character is embedded – overcoming pain and difficult times becomes more pronounced. Hockey is a special lifetime that takes place in real life. Yes, here from an early age they develop good qualities in themselves that are necessary to win in everyday life and in sports.

From a very early age, this sport makes it possible to develop the good qualities in people that are necessary in both everyday life and in sports, and not only to win, but also to develop a personality.

Can we speak about some kind of spiritual picture detailing hockey players? And not in a religious sense, but in a personal sense.

Definitely. And in the religious one too. We say that everyone has certain traditions and rituals that he tries to maintain. Someone says that this is superstition. As soon as a person achieves a result, he scrolls through his mind all the training work that led to victory. Then he will try to keep this training, to maintain some kind of tradition. This tradition will gradually grow stronger. But, if we talk about spirituality, religious canons are close to the Russian people. This is not only faith in God, but also faith in yourself, in your ability to achieve results, in your team, and in your capabilities. Therefore, the word Faith has a broader meaning than its religious one.

Can hockey be considered a philosophy and spiritual practice similar to martial arts?

To a certain degree yes, since each athlete becomes part of a team, and it is a team sport, but he has a duty to also train for the game individually, besides the psychological, theoretical, and tactical training, since each athlete has his personal fight. He is obligated to be strong, he must be ready for face-to-face competition, for contact, and for victory. If he loses, he must analyze the reasons, and look for ways to improve himself. However, since hockey is a team sport, it is more far-reaching than the martial arts, where you face off one-on-one.

Being a team sport, hockey borrowed a lot from martial arts. Here is what we borrowed from these disciplines: sportsmanship, respect for our rivals, and expressing gratitude after the fight – regardless of who prevails. Our type of sport is also comprised of discrete episodes involving face-to-face competition between the athletes. The only difference is that in team sports a player’s mistake can be corrected due to cooperation among all members, whereas during an individual fight the player has to rely solely on himself and his own strength.

We used karate, judo, and wrestling to train the athletes. Individuals can supplement any types of sport. Rugby, volleyball, basketball, the ancient Russian game lapta, golf, archery, chess – there are ways to help train hockey players in every discipline.

Can we talk about European hockey as being a separate phenomenon?

It most likely represents a national phenomenon. There are many countries in Europe where hockey is developing more quickly and energetically. There are countries that are more inclined towards a specific athletic discipline. There is the south – Spain and Italy, where there is football, tennis, and inline hockey. There are the Scandinavian countries, where winter sports are popular, such as skiing and ice hockey. In the Czech Republic, hockey is incredibly popular, and they were one of the first in Europe to foster it. Each nation has its own game pattern and history. We should instead speak about national characteristics. Well, in many ways, sport depends upon how society as a whole develops.

What is the secret to the success of sports in Switzerland? It is such a small country, but has such a high concentration of world athletic champions. You have Roger Federer, skiers, and even the Swiss ice hockey team today is in 4th place in the world rankings.

I believe that the Swiss phenomenon is quite explainable, as is the phenomenon with the Danes. Small countries are content with what they have, and try to foster that. In Switzerland, hockey has become as popular as football and their traditional form of wrestling. To be at a certain level and enter the elite ranks of a particular athletic discipline, you need to be able to develop and use new technologies, as well as be allowed to use new technologies. Switzerland and other small countries are realizing that they will not be able to achieve top indicators in this area due to their numbers. This means that they need to take another path, and develop the quality that the formative period has. Therefore, they invest in the development of children’s sports to get high-quality athletes at the end of the line. I repeat, they do not have any quantitative factor, since the population itself is not that large. They love sports in different disciplines. There is a good level of football, basketball, skiing, and cycling here.

The Swiss do not shy away from learning from others and adopt the experience gained by them

Is there a place for any humor in ice hockey? How witty are hockey players?

Absolutely. Athletes in general, and hockey players in particular, know how to think on their feet, and think quickly. Otherwise, they would not be able to win. These guys react very swiftly, both on the ice and in real life – and this is a positive aspect that gives them the ability to survive tough times or, for example, to cope with superiority complexes. Hockey is something creative, it is a theater where there is room to improvise, and that is why we strive to have athletes express themselves in the game, and think of their own options besides their tactical moves.

This act of creating, improvising – it is categorically vital. A good player is an actor on the ice, and we are the spectators. They roll out the game, create the performance.

Plus, there exists the incredible power of creative, interactive teamwork, when people feel each other at a subconscious level. This means distinctive, subtle elements, and those definitely need to be developed.

I do not like straight, primitive playing. A hockey player sees, reads, and generates the game depending on the specific situation. And, for the most part, hockey players are “purveyors of emotions”. That is why sports, and hockey, hold appeal for the spectators.

In anticipation of overwhelming emotions, fans go to the stadium, and spectators go to the theater. We become one whole, one family, with the fans, where there are so many feelings. This means suffering, and support, and empathy – this is joy, this is pride, and shared tears that fall into different categories (laughs), which entails a sense of patriotism in a deeper sense, if we take the games between national teams. Emotions are an integral part of human beings.

They say that Kharlamov wrote notes down for his guys. Do you have your own special “gimmick”, your own signature method for communicating with the team?

Kharlamov was a player. Unfortunately, he passed away early from this lifetime, and was unable to become a coach due to his tragic death. I can imagine what a great coach he would have been. In terms of my methods, I try to be close to the players, communicate respectfully, without being too chummy, and build up trust. The players need to understand that I am also a component in the machine and, like them, I have to do my job.

What methods are used in the Russian national team to psychologically tune in each player and the team to win?

Each player is obliged to personally prepare for the game, besides the team strategy and tactics that exist. Second, we provide as much information as possible for our players about their opponent, showing what their strengths and weaknesses are in order to achieve victory. Any information is necessary for the player to understand how he can achieve victory tapping into his full potential.

I gave the guys one example: you should be like a self-righting toy. Nobody can knock it down, and it keeps on getting up. You should be like that on the ice. By the time you have been “dropped”, you have already gotten up.

So it is in the Eastern Orthodox religion: they fell on their knees, got up, fell again, and got up again.

We kneel before God or a woman, and go down even a little lower to a child’s level, so that he understands and feels you, and does not just lift up his head and look at you. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child, “going down” to a child’s level is the principle adopted by children’s coaches. It is not easy, but it is very important.

I remembered how the guys from “Plumage” by Konstantin Yuryevich Khabenskiy were together with him backstage, before going onto the stage in the Kremlin, and they gathered together in a large circle, folded their hands on top of each other and shouted in unison: “Godspeed!” What do you do before going out onto the ice?

I was also lucky enough to meet Konstantin Khabenskiy. Perhaps they took this tradition from us. We on the TsSKA (Central Athletic Club of the Army) team, before going out on the ice, sat down and took a break. Everyone concentrated, and then the coach gave the command. And before the game the whole team got together, and everyone put their hands on each other’s shoulders, creating a powerful charge. It is a good component of transferring energy, creating a circle, a core, and internal cohesion. It unites people, and inspires them to play. I understand the performing artists with the Khabenskiy troupe about this, and they are doing the right thing. Also, after the match we get together and thank each other for playing.

I think theater and sports have similar traditions. This is teamwork. It would be nice to have these kinds of traditions in manufacturing – productivity would be better (laughs).

In the Soviet-era school, coaches have always taught two disciplines; is this true, and if so why?

This was traditionally the case in the Soviet Union. I also graduated from a military physical education department in Leningrad with two specialties: hockey and football. When I started playing, I played football with the same team in the summer and then hockey with them in the winter. The two sports are spiritually similar, and help each other. During training, we practiced different sports. I advise that children’s coaches use different athletic disciplines to help develop the child. Any kind of sport supplements development, broadens horizons, triggers different qualities, and improves children’s coordination. It is important. Playing chess is incredibly beneficial, although some might ask where the athletic component is in it. Sport is not only movement and strength – it is thought. Any games, not only athletic ones, entail wit, reaction, improvisation, and craftiness.

Can a team consist entirely of leaders, distinct identities?

My principle, and the thrust of all this, is that every hockey player should strive to consider himself the main one, and be a leader. The principle is “Who, if not I?”. Each person has his own main role, which he must play ideally. The story that says if he wears a captain’s armband, and he is holding a banner in his hands, so let him go forth and conquer does not work in a team sport. Everyone should feel like a captain on the team. But this is my approach. I do not try to school anyone, and do not impose my opinion. I just want to share my experience, and how we lived and worked as a team.

The concept
of masculinity

For me and for many women, you are the embodiment of a man with a capital “M”. What’s your code of masculinity?

It is very powerful and complex. Be human and respect others, be it an adult or a child. But, of course, sometimes it is important to genuinely be that man who can stand up for himself and his loved ones, not tolerate injustice, and speak the truth – regardless of the circumstances. This is such a difficult philosophical question.

Once upon a time, men went hunting, hunted, captured something, and brought it home, and the woman was at the hearth. How do you see things now?

Just as men used to be hunters, they remain hunters. Now emancipation is on a different level, so a woman’s right is to choose whether to stay at the hearth or to realize herself in some other way. I am just in favor of the fact that men and women learn to create the right relationships, and don’t belittle each other but create an atmosphere of joy, friendliness, respect, and love.

But nowadays many women are taking on the role of hunters and therefore, in my opinion, deprive men of their virility. Today, when a woman can earn money, should a man relax and go with the flow? How do men manifest themselves today?

I think that a man should be like a flexible strap that cannot be broken. It is important to develop the ability to adapt appropriately, and be flexible in relations with those closest to you. Today, women have the same important role in society as men. The wife is the same person as the husband is, and has the same rights. But, in addition to this, the most important peacekeeping mission falls on her shoulders – perpetuating humanity – and this must be doubly respected.

It seems to me that respect and understanding form the root of all relationships. What provides happiness? Understanding each other.

As in coaching, our mission is to enable an athlete to reveal his best qualities, to give him this joy when he is striving for perfection, and tries to find to discover what lies ‘beyond’ his capabilities. Likewise, in a family you need to give your loved ones the opportunity to open up and feel loved, and this is the job of each family member. And if a woman wants it, give her the opportunity to feel like a leader, while retaining responsibility for the family ship. And that’s why the word “flexibility” came to my mind.

Does friendship still exist these days, or are we all at the mercy of networking: interaction for mutual benefit?

No, there is friendship, and I hope that it will continue to exist. It’s very difficult without friendship. Friendship, love. It is impossible to live without this, or you need to be some kind of ascetic or hermit. But, on the other hand, you need to be at peace with yourself. To be in the world is also friendship. Not only for men, but also for women, this is a vital necessity: how to breathe, how to drink, how to love.

Do you have many friends?

We have few friends in life. You can count them on one hand. There are more friendly acquaintances. There are only a few friends, and I am glad that I have them. They are in Russia and, by the way, I really miss them. They are always there for both joy and sorrow. You can share with them, talk frankly, and get support and advice. It seems to me that it is like this for any person. Friendship is made up of little things. Sometimes it seems that you can’t even call it a relationship, but some small episode – a piece of advice, a word – will open up your eyes, and you see the world, and the meaning of that person in your life, quite differently.

What personality

Is it possible to nurture someone to the rank of champion, or is it something in the blood?

This is instilled starting in childhood. How you feel about work, how you are able to finish what you have begun, and not jump from one thing to another, how you try to improve yourself, learn to be better.

Coaches, parents, teachers – everyone is involved in the process of creating a personality. Of course, it is not necessary for everyone to become Champions, but everyone needs to take on a personality. Incidentally, personalities often become champions (laughs).

I was once asked to describe myself as a coach. Without thinking twice, I said: a democratic dictator! It seems to me that this covers it all. From the democrat there is that respect for those with whom you work, and dictatorship concerns professionalism: discipline, hard work, and continuous improvement.

I would replace the word “regimentation” with painstaking, everyday work: exercises from morning to evening, practicing snipes and dangles all the time which, just like the exercises, allow for improvement, expanding the limits of a person’s capabilities.

Can you give any examples of the vivid demonstration of personality and teamwork?

I know many hockey players who fight like tigers on the ice, and demonstrate tough hockey. And as soon as the “tiger” comes out of the rink, it has already turned into a lamb, a real sweetheart, a noble, gentle, and warm person who derives real pleasure from life. Men who play hockey are strong in spirit. But this does not mean that they cannot have vulnerable and sensitive natures.

The role of a mentor is to know your guys, keep your finger on their pulse, give them the opportunity to reveal their best qualities, and get pleasure and satisfaction from the results, games, from life as a team.

The most powerful engine in life is pleasure. There is personal and general, team pleasure, and yes, power is stronger. Therefore, we gather in a circle and hold hands in a circle, and the energy increases, and the joy is more powerful when we achieve these results together.


What is the “Russian spirit”?

Love for one’s Homeland

What is a “Russian woman”?

This is even more love

What is HOCKEY?

Besides love, this is a hobby, work, passion, the desire for perfection, life, and air. I am talking about myself.

What is love?

A perfect feeling, and one without which, it seems to me, not a single person on the planet can live. This feeling can inspire anyone to accomplish any feat. That’s redundant – “to inspire a feat” (laughs)

If hockey hadn’t been invented, what would you be doing with your life?

I loved football very much, and played up until I was 19 years old, and then decided to choose hockey. An architect. I always wanted to build something, and that is why I played in the center, where I needed to build up a defense around me.


Happy hockey day to fans and athletes. What can you wish the boys who dream of playing hockey?

Any mountain can be conquered with a strong enough desire. Any dream comes true with great desire and a lot of discipline. It is important to believe in this dream and walk toward it, see this path. See yourself there, on top of this dream, on a pedestal.

Hockey is not just a game with one team, it is a society that under the name ‘club’ rallies together hundreds of people from different professions, living with one goal. This is a big family. Also, all these people are trying to please their fans, and now the club is turning into a society that is of great importance in the public life and in raising someone to become a personality.

I always say one phrase to my guys: “You have a unique profession – one which not only gives you the opportunity to satisfy your financial needs, and not only to enjoy and get satisfaction from your work, but in a split second you can make millions of people happy, and about this must be remembered. ”

Sport is the strongest unifying factor in public life, and it fosters feelings of patriotism in people – an important pillar that supports both a personality and society.

Everything will work out!

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